'I know I'm being paranoid, but I can't help thinking people are having meetings I'm not invited to, or side-texting each other while I'm speaking at the weekly online catch-up." So said a friend recently, who works in the kind of corporate sector that used to mean a 9-5 job in an open-plan office with scores of other employees. "I feel uneasy all the time about what's going on behind my back."
Judging by the conversations I have been hearing recently, she is not the only one. Work used to mean being physically in front of those who hold decision-making power over your career; wearing your best work clothes, looking presentable and capable.
Now, we sit, squashed into a box room or attic space, highly conscious of the stain on the wall behind us, dressed from the waist up, with our children squabbling downstairs as we try and come up with a contribution that won't feel as if it's falling 40,000 feet into dead air when we un-mute the microphone.
No wonder we feel self-conscious, even a little paranoid (not to be confused with genuine paranoia, which can be as a result of more serious mental illness).
We all know the side-texting is happening - some of us have even done it; a quick eye-roll emoji at a particularly pompous colleague. But there is an emerging feeling of insecurity around remote working in general. Because the limitations of online interaction are not confined to bad image quality or freezing audio. There is an entire psychological component to the new world order, and it's starting to catch up with us.
The uneasiness isn't imagined, and it isn't unreasonable.
"From birth, as social animals, even those of us who are more introverted by nature, we use our senses to check how we are interacting with the world; in particular, how other people respond our communication and behaviour," explains Adrienne Davitt, corporate psychologist and managing director of Davitt Corporate Partners (davittcorporatepartners.com). "This helps us to define who we are, and develop good social and interpersonal skills. Being able to work from home is something many of us wanted more flexibility with, but it has meant four months of not having any real, tangible engagement with our colleagues, friends and even bosses. This leaves us in uncharted territory. We need to physically be in the same space as others in order to clarify our sense of ourselves.
"The prolonged lack of this type of interaction is going to cause anxiety, stress, even depression. After four months, our sense of our professional relationships can begin to feel less firm, steady and grounded."
This is actually very reassuring: the sense of dislocation isn't personal, and it isn't unreasonable. It's a by-product of the new world in which we are learning to operate. "While Zoom and other 'face-to-face' tools do allow us to see and hear others, there is still a significant amount of information not available to us and this can leave us with a sense of unease," says Adrienne, "or of things not being said or clearly understood."
Neil O'Brien, Chartered Psychologist and Managing Director of People Performance Ltd (peopleperformance.ie), makes the point that "people can feel exposed during meetings as it is an 'abnormal' way to interact. We have been conditioned to interact face-to-face and to use both verbal and non-verbal cues to shape our responses. This is more difficult on a video conference.
"Also, people can feel more pressure to respond as it may not always be as easy to get your point across in a video-con. There is no simple answer to this," he points out, adding "there is a responsibility on the meeting host to ensure that the session is run in a fair way and that they remain aware of how team members are contributing, and respond accordingly."
Right, so what to do? First, for employers: Adrienne suggests: "Management need to be aware that we all need regular and supportive messages from our fellow humans. Even though managers themselves will be feeling the effects of prolonged isolation, it is imperative that they have consistent and effective interactions with their reports."
"Consider the size of the meeting," says Neil. "A lot of people is a lot of voices and there are only ever a finite number of minutes available. Shorter meetings with less people may help ensure all persons have the opportunity to air their thoughts."
"Remember most people need training and practice to feel comfortable talking to a group, no matter what size," says Adrienne. "Practice what you want to say; have a couple of relevant points you can add, once you know the agenda, and make sure you say at least one of them in each interaction. Before going in a call, do a quick box breathing exercise; you can look up this practice, it is a very quick and effective means of physically relaxing your body and clearing your mind. Afterwards, get up and do something physical to release the tension!"
As for those of us worried that, because we are no longer sitting directly in front of our bosses, we may be overlooked, Neil says, "the first step to change is an awareness of the need to change, and if the current approach is not working, it is time to take ownership and devise strategies to ensure you remain present in the minds of those who matter. An action diary can often help with this where people can write down the issues that are causing them disquiet and then also record actions to combat."
And, he emphasises, "it has never been as easy to remain visible whilst being invisible. By this I mean strengthening your profile on platforms such as Linkedin. Challenging yourself to contribute to teams in work, even when it may feel less comfortable."
Adrienne agrees: "Even on a telephone, call we can be 'visible' to others. Without someone else actually being able to see us, we can leave a clear impression or imprint after a conversation."
She recommends "saying what you need to say and following it up with a short and meaningful email or text to help to reinforce your message. Not overdoing it is important obviously, as everyone is besieged with emails, just making sure your key points are repeated in written format.
"There will always be people who talk more than others, who take up more time and who seem to find it easy to express themselves. You don't have to be loud or excessively dominant in a group, but you do have to be persistent and determined in being heard by others."
There is another cost to remote working, however, and that is the network we create around ourselves in an office environment.
And 'network,' of course, is simply a grand term for the web of allegiances, friendships and common goals we establish with those around us. It is a huge part of what makes working life pleasant, and indeed bearable. And very often, it is something that evolves organically.
So how do we maintain this network when we no longer get coffee or take the elevator together? "We now need to become 'pro-active, not re-active' in maintaining our social network," agrees Neil. "Arranging to meet, either virtually, or in person, will be crucial. Whilst our drive is to be social, we are also very adaptable and many will have 'normalised' to lockdown conditions, meaning that we risk remaining withdrawn from others. Pro-active steps to re-engage on a social level will be an important step in maintaining well-being."
And, as Adrienne points out, it is worth remembering that, "most people are, at this point, finding everything very challenging, stressful and exhausting. So it is really important to build in good habits for yourself and to get help if you feel you are not coping as well as you would like."
What though if our lockdown paranoia isn't work-related, but friends/ social life-related? Because this too is one of the consequences of recent months. Niamh Hannan, chartered psychologist and coach with mindworks.ie, says "feeling like that indicates an insecurity, an anxiety about being left out. It is a mindset of lack - seeing what others are doing, what others have - rather than what we ourselves are doing and have. Often, too, there is an inherent bias to this; do you contact all your friends when you're doing something? Of course not, you can't. But this paranoid mindset puts you in a victim position, in which you look to blame someone - 'you're doing this to me…'"
So what to do? "Name what you're feeling. Tell yourself 'I've been feeling anxious… I've been on my own and I've had too much time to think, maybe I'm prone to over-thinking anyway.' Recognise that our thoughts are not facts. In fact, there isn't necessarily any truth to them at all.
"Reach out. Give others the benefit of the doubt - get in touch, say 'I've missed you, I feel a bit out of the loop; could we go for coffee or a walk?' Give them the opportunity to engage with you. If there's no come-back from that, then maybe there is an issue with the friendship, and that might need to be addressed, but the chances are, there isn't, that your feelings aren't based in reality, and your wise mind knows this. We need to separate from our anxious mind at times like this," she says, "and interrogate our thoughts."
As she points out, we all need human connection. "The phrase 'social distancing;' isn't helpful. We need to physically distance, but we need social connection. So don't withdraw, don't isolate yourself, reach out, connect. It may feel difficult, but take that bit of risk and look to connect with friends."
⬤ For Elena Mifsud (elenamifsudcoaching.com), a career and leadership coach who has worked in the area of mental health support, there is a deeper question about workplace engagement. "It's a question of psychological safety," she says. "In my own practise, I was seeing a lot of people presenting with anxiety and depression before the Covid crisis, and an awful lot of that was down to the workplace and people not feeling psychologically safe, due to power plays, bullying, communication issues and so on."
This, Elena says, often comes down to "basic human principles of respect - honouring each other, valuing each other, listening to each other. Online behaviour where people can say whatever they like because they have a false sense of power, these behaviours are starting to trickle into our general engagement and even into the workplace." The way through this, she says, is "to focus on process - how you move forward, how you work together. For employers, how do we set up the system so we are accountable for the way we communicate with each other? So we make sure workplace interactions happen within a safe space, whether that is online or in person?"
These are big questions, but one suggestion for this, she says, is a rotating chairperson. The 'authority figure' rotates, which different perspectives, and ensures buy-in from those whose 'turn' may be next.